Wednesday, December 11, 2019

On the road again

From Youngstown, OH:

The E.P. and I, along with the revitalized Morty, are driving cross-country again. Morty appears to be having bad memories of riding in Wowser.
A difference is this time is that he is allowed to ride on the lap of the one of us who is not driving. It doesn't look as if he takes very kindly to that either, though it's got to be less lonely than being locked in the back.
Meanwhile, the weather is doing what the weather does in December. Lovely ... but means driving requires complete attention.

Blogging along the way will be sporadic.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

No chance of working


The Washington Post has surfaced a trove of US government documents which show that both military and civilian operatives in Afghanistan have known for years that the "mission" was FUBAR -- deadly, ill-considered, usually pointless.

As is so often the case about this country's wars of empire, it was possible to know at the time though mainstream and alternative media, even from half the circumference of the planet away, much of what is now "revealed" here.

I was struck in particular by what they have surfaced about the drug trade. In 2006 and 2007, I wrote on this blog about the history of drugs in our wars and the rise of opium of production under US occupation. Here's what's now come out:

From the beginning, Washington never really figured out how to incorporate a war on drugs into its war against al-Qaeda. By 2006, U.S. officials feared that narco-traffickers had become stronger than the Afghan government and that money from the drug trade was powering the insurgency.

No single agency or country was in charge of the Afghan drug strategy for the entirety of the war, so the State Department, the DEA, the U.S. military, NATO allies and the Afghan government butted heads constantly.

“It was a dog’s breakfast with no chance of working,” an unnamed former senior British official told government interviewers.

The agencies and allies made things worse by embracing a dysfunctional muddle of programs, according to the interviews.

At first, Afghan poppy farmers were paid by the British to destroy their crops — which only encouraged them to grow more the next season. Later, the U.S. government eradicated poppy fields without compensation — which only infuriated farmers and encouraged them to side with the Taliban.

“It was sad to see so many people behave so stupidly,” one U.S. official told government interviewers.

Afghanistan was never "the good war" as the early Obama administration hopefully asserted. Like Iraq, it was and is misbegotten and lethal to no good end.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A season to reject hate

Several churches on Martha's Vineyard that display the LGBT rainbow flag found themselves tagged with this offensive sticker recently. Nearby on the mainland, the Falmouth Jewish Congregation had its property defaced at the time of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in September.

The Island Clergy Association offered a vigorous statement:

We state unequivocally that we and our various religious traditions are united against hatred and discrimination, and that we stand together in respecting the dignity of every human being.

We make this statement in our current climate of rancor and divisiveness that many of us have not seen since the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. We are deeply concerned by the erosion of civility and the current trend that relegates those who disagree to a demonized other, one whose voice and opinions are not worth listening to.

We are as concerned and more by the motivations and actions of those who have taken their ideology to the next step of doing harm to others through their speech or actions. We acknowledge that people, often religiously or ideologically motivated, may disagree and hold differing views concerning the beliefs and actions of others. ...

The statement from the religious leaders received respectful coverage from the local media. Islanders don't want to think that the conflicts which roil the nation rumble on here in this isolated, slightly precious, community as well. But they do, of course.

The Rev. Stephen Harding of Grace Episcopal, where we've been attending, preached on the clergy statement which he obviously had some role in assembling. Quite properly, he spoke for our imperative as followers of Jesus to seek reconciliation with all people, to meet hatred with love. That's not easy.

I wish he'd also more clearly coupled that message with a bold restatement of our concurrent call to work for justice and dignity for the oppressed, which the day's readings from the biblical prophet Isaiah emphasize as part of the content of the prophet's vision of peace. This too is our calling.

I think my Congressmember, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, caught a right balance between justice and love in her recent responses to a loaded question about whether she "hated" Donald Trump. Of course she has differences with the man and his party about policies.

“I think the president is a coward when it comes to helping our kids who are afraid of gun violence,” Pelosi said. “I think he is cruel when he doesn’t deal with helping our ‘dreamers,’ of which we are very proud. I think he’s in denial about the climate crisis.”

[But] “As a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is full — a heart full of love — and always pray for the president. And I still pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time.”

I think she means this.

I'm not as good a Christian as my Congressmember; I despise Donald Trump. That is, my heart is ready to consign him to the category of less-than-human. He's not, of course. He's just a terribly damaged specimen of humanity who inflicts his vile neediness on everything he touches. The best I can do about him is try not to fixate on him, a practice I think I achieve relatively successfully for a person who tries to be an active political actor where I can. I recommend this.

Fortunately we have Pelosi, many Democrats, and many others who are doing their darnedest to curtail Donald J.Trump's assault on truth, rule of law, and decency. Let's also build as we resist.

Polls, polls and more polls

Can we learn anything true from public opinion surveys? Does anyone have coherent opinions about what sort of improvements they want to how we access health care? Does the public really care about a President offering a reward to a foreign country to hurt an electoral opponent?

We're drowning in this sort of semi-scientific survey research. This little video describes how pollsters design their questions. They aren't perfect, but the responsible ones are at least thoughtful about the task.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Martha's Vineyard: History is not dead, or even past

This Civil War era soldier figure still dominates the Oak Bluffs ferry landing on Martha's Vineyard. I've been wondering about it for years. What's a monument to Confederate soldiers doing on the green in Oak Bluffs? Or so I thought, apparently oversimplifying a slightly more complex story. In the early 20th century the figure was donated by a former Confederate officer "in honor of the Confederate soldiers" as some kind of token of reconciliation with his former antagonists in the Union army. A plaque added in 1925 read "The chasm is closed." That seems an effort to "disappear" this country's bloodiest war.

Such gestures aimed to whitewash the truth: the Civil War was fought to determine whether African-descended human beings were property or people. There was plenty of death, gore, and cruelty -- and darn little honor and brotherhood -- in that war, but ex-Confederates had an interest in drawing a pretty picture to obscure the reality. Hence Mr. Strahan's gift to the town, already a place long occupied by and often visited by Black citizens.

Last spring, at the prompting of the NAACP, the town selectmen (local council) held a public forum.

David Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and founder of Sassafrass Earth Education, was one of the first people to speak. He said he wanted to see the plaques removed and replaced with a memorial representing the resilience of all people, specifically Wampanoag and African Americans.

“Martha’s Vineyard should not and does not stand for white male supremacy — a symbol of the Confederacy,” Vanderhoop said. “We need to be able to look each other in the eye and stand side by side for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and their children, and so on.”

Jocelyn Coleman Walton said the plaques should be removed because it hurts people of the Vineyard and those who visit.

“The chasm has never closed for me,” Coleman Walton said. “Think about how this affects all our African American, our Wampanoag, our people of color.”

Tom Rancich, a Navy veteran, spoke about his combat experience, and said he is glad his children will never have to experience what he went through. “I can tell you stories that will make you all cringe. I can tell you about the horrors of what humans do to each other,” Rancich said. “War is horrible, humans are fallible … I think those memorials ought to be removed.”...

The selectmen voted to consign the "chasm is closed" plaque to the Martha's Vineyard Museum and cover its space on the statue with plywood. I found the plaque hanging in a back corner without, yet, an explanatory display.
The museum is still studying the fraught question of how to explain its new artifacts to visitors.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Race and religion, oh my!


Erudite Partner is all over the internet again today, discussing White Anxiety and Imperial Christianity: The GOP Pathologies that Twin them with Trump. Read all about it.

No wonder we're an unhappy polity

The young people are decidedly NOT alright when it comes to their economic security.

This chart, from a Washington Post analysis, shows how bleak prospects must feel to all too many. It's not about how much income folks are making in their jobs, if they have jobs, which at present they probably do of some sort.

It's about wealth:

Wealth is a measure of what people own: their assets (which typically include homes, cash savings and stocks) minus their debts (like mortgages, student loans, consumer debt). Its importance to an individual, a nation or an entire generation cannot be overstated; it gives families a safety net during hard economic times, such as a layoff, and is intertwined with such milestones of adult life as buying a home, starting a business or retiring comfortably.

The article doesn't emphasize this as much as I might: these days, ambitious young people who might otherwise be buying houses or other assets are trapped under a burden of education and other debt which gets in their way. This means their "wealth" nets out to not much of anything at all, even if they are making a decent income.

There's nothing novel in this, but the article is succinct and worth reading.

Friday cat blogging

To see Morty on his bed by the wood stove, you'd hardly know that he'd been a patient in our amateur cat hospital for the last two months. Force feeding and watering have helped him restore himself to a less hefty version the pre-adventuring Morty.

He's looking and acting pretty normal for an old feline. Let's hope he's built up enough reserves to endure another car trip across the country when we set off for home next week.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Kamala Harris quits: she had no tough campaign experience behind her

So Kamala Harris is out of the Democratic presidential sweepstakes. The pundit media are full of commentary on what went wrong for her. Nothing comes easy for a Black woman, a mixed race woman, any woman. So all that was against her. And, as most commentators point out, she never settled on a coherent reason -- a message -- why she should be President, besides fulfilling the promise her brains and obvious star-power.

Full disclosure: Harris was never my preferred candidate, but like so many who follow politics, I thought she might just run away with the nomination, serving as an acceptible compromise between our aspirations for change and our desire for conventional credibility. Didn't come to pass.

I have no desire to dance on Harris' grave. If she'd won the nomination, it would have been easier to work up enthusiasm for her than for some of the other potential presidents. We don't have to fall in love with any candidate; we just have to commit to engaged citizenship and democracy over squalor, graft, and deliberate cruelty. She'd have at least made necessary work interesting.

Before Harris gave up, the pundit media was full of stories about trouble in her campaign; the Times wrote one that claimed 50 (!) informants among staff and supporters. A presidential campaign is a big enterprise, but that's a hell of a lot of disgruntled inside voices. And their willingness to talk to the media shows what I think was a big part of doing Harris in: she brought no almost experience of running a big, fiercely contested campaign in which she was not the establishment candidate.

This is not so obvious outside California. After all, Harris had won in a state of 40 million people. That's a lot bigger than the electoral accomplishments of some of the other contenders. But in fact, Harris has followed a charmed political path. That's not to say she didn't work for what she won -- it's to say her path didn't much involve attracting and mobilizing broad swathes of the people as she would have needed to do to win the White House.

Kamala Harris won her first election, as District Attorney, in San Francisco in 1996. She knocked off the incumbent, Terence Hallinan, a leftish long-time fixture of city politics whose career of fisticuffs and muck-stirring had worn out his welcome. He was colorful and on the side of the angels for a prosecutor, but inspired little confidence that he was getting law enforcement done. Harris was backed by the powers-that-be including Senator Diane Feinstein, Willie Brown, then jumping from state Assembly Speaker to Mayor, and the police union. Vaguely liberal, she was a good fit for a weary city.

In 2010, after a mixed record little noted by the general public as San Francisco D.A., Harris ran her only really tough electoral race, running statewide, and defeating Steve Cooley to become California Attorney General. This was the first time she'd face a well-funded, moderate Republican; we don't have those in San Francisco. Out of over 9 million votes cast, she squeaked by with 46.1 percent and a 74,157 vote margin. In the same year, Democrat Jerry Brown running for Governor destroyed Meg Whitman by a 53.8-40.9 margin, and over a million votes. Harris' contest was one of those oh-so-Californian elections: counting of mail-in ballots continued for days and the election day result was overturned in favor of the Democrat. (We have to get our people voting more promptly!) This one was a tough campaign, but Harris ultimately rode the statewide Democratic wave into office.

By 2016, California's capitol had two rising Democratic stars, Lt. Gov. Gavin and A.G. Kamala, and faced a potential clash of titans. Jerry Brown would be termed out as governor in 2018. Who would get the nod for the big prize? Senator Barbara Boxer simplified things by choosing not to run for re-election after three terms. To all appearances a deal was cut: Kamala got the Senate spot, while Gavin would run for Governor (and win) in 2018. The 2016 Senate election was almost a laugher. Harris defeated her conservative Democratic opponent (who was vying for Republican votes) with over 62 percent. And thus Harris was launched on the national stage, without ever having shown she could manage and win a tough campaign on her own.

She had proved that she knew how to line up parts of the establishment behind her star power. She always had that in California and her presidential run had some of the same: when she quit, she was second only to Joe Biden in endorsements from political figures, including older members of the Black Caucus.

This accomplished, ambitious politician certainly isn't done just because her presidential ambitions have been checked. We don't entirely know who she is yet. I hope she evolves into an accomplished Senator and finds more grounding in principled work on behalf of her constituents. Such potential there ... not yet realized.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

We see what we expect to see

As we come into the Christian season which anticipates the birth of the baby Jesus, a dose of art history explains the mystery of why medieval representations of the holy child render him so ugly. Apparently the reason is theological, reflecting doctrine about the nature of Jesus.

Medieval concepts of Jesus were deeply influenced by the homunculus, which literally means little man. "There's the idea that Jesus was perfectly formed and unchanged," [art historian Matthew] Averett says, "and if you combine that with Byzantine painting, it became a standard way to depict Jesus. In some of these images, it looks like he had male pattern baldness."

Apparently it wasn't until much later that the adult Jesus came to be represented as a long-haired hippy.

Renaissance society adopted a novel notion of childhood innocence, so its representations, both of the baby Jesus and aristocratic children painted for wealthy art patrons, drifted toward saccharine and cherubic.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A meandering meditation on "Losers' Consent" and other democratic virtues


People who read the blog are likely concerned about the health of U.S. democracy. The extraordinary, even bizarre, contortions British democracy is going through over Brexit may have some relevance to thinking about our condition.

I'm not going to try to dig into Brexit here; that's beyond me. The simplest narrative is that in a referendum in 2016 a small majority (52-48) of British voters opted to pull the country out of its over-40 year participation in the customs arrangements and governing structures of the European Union. Most Leave voters were older, white, rural, and traditionally English; most Remain voters were younger, urban, came from Scotland, Northern Ireland, or cosmopolitan London, and many were non-white. One way of looking at the referendum is that Britain's past voted against its future. Seem familiar? Britain has still not actually departed the EU; implementing Brexit has snarled British politics in previously unimaginable tangles ever since the vote. This may (or may not) be resolved in the upcoming election on December 12. Meanwhile the EU is frustrated and getting impatient.

Watching the Brexit mess and reading commentators, I've found myself pondering the concept of "Losers' Consent." This political science concept (outlined in a 2005 book) means what it says: democracy only works when losers accept the legitimacy of electoral defeats. This lament from a 2016 Remain voter who plans to vote this time around for a pro-Brexit party catches its essence:

“The vote was to leave, so you know, recognize the vote,” the man said. “To me, once you vote, that’s it — you either accept it, or if you don’t accept it, democracy means nothing.”

He's sticking up for democracy in his own way.

The current British election is being contested amid violent threats that are shocking in what believed itself to be a more restrained political polity. During the 2016 campaign, a young rising star Labour Party parliamentarian, Jo Cox, who stood against Brexit and for inclusion of immigrants, was knifed on the street in her district. Fears linger. Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University has found surprising levels of approval for political violence. He opines:

... one factor that may be contributing to the “industrial quantities” of threats is that those on the losing side haven’t accepted defeat. And they haven’t accepted defeat, he said, because they feel they were “lied to, cheated and that the referendum was held under false pretenses.”

He added that on the winning side, “there was no attempt to reach out to the very, very large minority who voted a different way to say, ‘I hear your concerns, this is how we will assuage them.’ … Instead they are called ‘saboteurs’ or ‘remoaners’ or ‘traitors,’ and Brexit is redefined in an evermore hard-line way.”

Again, sound familiar amid our present U.S. situation?
...
When Losers' Consent follows from a democratic process, the political science literature says democracy is strengthened. In our domestic experience, it's hard to be convinced that it true. Al Gore affirmed losers' consent in the arguably stolen election of 2000; in 2016, Hillary Clinton gracefully affirmed losers' consent when a systemic curlicue (the Electoral College) denied her what the popular vote total would indicate was the democratic outcome. Winners -- George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump -- sought to brush aside or deny the questions about their lack of popular vote legitimacy.

Contemporary norms of democratic fairness -- an expectation that the candidate with the most votes wins -- have been violated, repeatedly. The shrinking old, white, rural base of the contemporary Republican Party can't win by attracting raw numbers -- more and more they have can only win through stratagems that disempower the voting strength of their opponents, that undermine popular electoral democracy.

And so we are living with an impeachment drama well described by scholar Danielle Allen in a recent oped.

For Democrats working their hearts out, on behalf of one or another candidate, the discovery that President Trump appears to have marshaled the unmatchable power of his office to conjure up investigations into a leading political rival is a heavyweight punch to the gut. The unfairness of having to fight against someone willing to fight that dirty, and with the power and resources to distort the election almost at will, is enraging.

For Republicans who worked their hearts out in 2016 on behalf of candidate Donald Trump, the relentless investigations into the president are equally enraging. The unfairness of having to constantly fight against what feel like efforts to undo a legitimate election result causes them to see red. Conservative media is full of angry denunciations of Democrats for failing to accept their humiliating political defeat.

We are all enraged, the entire polity. We are enraged because few of us believe the other side respects, and will protect, free and fair elections.

She's accurate of course; hardly anyone is in the condition of mind and heart to offer losers' consent to those with whom they differ.
...
I'm reminded that this is a country founded in refusal of consent to governance that our founders believed to be illegitimate. I'm reminded that the Declaration of Independence grounds the colonial rebellion against the English monarch in the bold assertion that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." We still believe this, most of us.

And that "we" who demand a democratic right to consent is an ever larger fraction of the people of this land; there were a lot of "non-people" around in 1776 and 1787 -- women, native people, enslaved people, non-Christian people, and others with no property. Now we all want and expect to be insiders in our democracy, not just spectators. Hence rage and #Resistance.
...
Political scientists who have elaborated the losers' consent concept suggest that there's an important fraction in a democratic polity who we overlook and who can tip the balance in a closely divided context.

[This is] the conventional image of the ideal citizen: informed, sophisticated, committed, and able to overcome their frustrations after a defeat. However, the findings suggest that the stability of democracies may also depend on other groups of voters rarely celebrated by analysts – namely some of the late deciders and those voters torn between contradicting considerations.

These two groups have a reputation for being less politically educated and deciding how to vote in emotional or expressive ways. We suggest that the ‘graceful’ losers amongst them are an indispensable component of the democratic majority in the aftermath of an electoral campaign, and that they contribute to the stability of democratic regimes.

This observation points to the necessary target of the grand democratic mobilization that will be the 2020 election. There are still a few people who are disengaged from contemporary politics -- and who don't want participate in the general rage. Their desire for social harmony is a healthy contribution the wider polity, even if infuriating to those of us feeling an existential threat to ourselves and our country's possibilities. There aren't many, but they can be won, but only if we organize ourselves to talk with them rather than just yell louder.

The LA Times interviewed such a voter. Christie Black is a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom who abandoned the GOP and voted independent in 2016 rather than support Trump. Now she might be open to voting for a Democrat.

“I think right now the most important thing is to get those principles of democracy tied down, get that return to regular order, and then we can worry and get back to squabbling about conservative versus liberal.”

That's not how I think, but the winner of the 2020 election needs to reach the Christies. To the annoyance and even fury of many, they may be what keeps this listing democratic vessel on an even keel.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Impact to be determined ...

From what I have been able to ascertain, this explainer offers a fair exposition of what California's new law governing police shootings means. The law sets the stage for more litigation every time the cops kill someone -- litigation about whether the killing was "necessary."

Cops have a lot of legitimacy and clout within the entire legal system. Cases about police use of force are probably just as likely to go the cops' way as they always were. What that means is that community vigilance and community pressure will still be needed to win any justice, especially for victims of color.

But, just maybe, the new standard creates a new discouragement to blatant police misconduct. Perhaps a few cops may have a new incentive to think twice before pulling the trigger.Perhaps it creates a new instrument bereaved families and friends can use to demand reform. None of that is going to happen without ongoing community pressure.

What conditions make democracy possible?

Political scientist Sheri Berman has gone big and wide in Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day . She's applied a schematic analysis of modern European history to most of the continent's states, tracking their various system evolutions toward -- and away from -- stable liberal democratic governance. The result offers intriguing details that both bolster and sometimes seem more insightful than her grand frame. I appreciated the ambition of this book, but reading it sometimes felt as if I were being herded along a prescribed track that had more reality in the author's brain than in the lives of these societies.

So what's Berman's framing premise? She posits that for states to become (relatively) stable democracies, they need to 1) clear away old regimes in which authoritarian monarchs tussled with privileged aristocrats and localities, excluding most popular ferment; 2) define and achieve broad legitimacy for national boundaries, both geographical and usually ethnic; and 3) then create popular democratic institutions which deliver enough widely shared well-being to defuse insurgent challenges from either a populist left or a conservative right. She describes the evolution of governments in a series of case studies, beginning with Britain which took a very early path toward democratic state legitimacy, through France, Italy, Germany, Spain, moving on to the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian and post-World War II Soviet Russian empires.

Some of Berman's generalizations:

... Often forgotten is that at some point all states were “new,” even those currently viewed as “natural” or “inevitable,” and building national identities and strong states has always been a lengthy and difficult process.

... democracy is considered consolidated when citizens believe in its inherent superiority or suitability for their society, separate from the particular outcomes it produces or the leaders and governments in power at particular times.

... [a] pattern that emerges clearly from the European past and a crucial lesson for the contemporary period is that achieving consolidated liberal democracy easily or quickly is extremely unusual.

... liberal democracy is so rare and difficult to achieve because it requires transforming not merely the political procedures and institutions of dictatorship, but societies and economies as well.

... there was no easy or peaceful path to liberal democracy.

If you bring to this book a moderate familiarity with modern European political history (what I have), there's a lot here that can enlarge an understanding of that past. I found Berman's expansive account of the evolution of the French Second Republic, especially during the anti-Semitic Dreyfus episode, particularly enlightening; it had been too easy just to dismiss the stumbling French republic as evidence of national frivolousness, an Anglo-Saxon bias. Her exposition of Spain's torments on the road to its present state is chilling; when democracy formation went fully off the rails, the result was devastating.

Overall, the [1936-39] civil war brought to a violent culmination the growing tendency of left and right to deny the legitimacy or even basic humanity of the other: “political rather than ethnic cleansing” was the consequence of democracy’s collapse in Spain.

Berman's concluding note about the relevance of this schematic discussion to the United States seems worth quoting at length:

Americans have particular difficulty grappling with the chaotic and circuitous nature of democratic development, and here too a better understanding of the past can help. We commonly think of our country as having always been a liberal democracy and thus assume democracy is “natural” or at least fairly easy to achieve.

But using common political science standards, the United States was not, in fact, a fully liberal democracy until the second half of the twentieth century. Before the Civil War an entire section of the United States—the South—was a tyrannical oligarchy and it took the bloodiest conflict in our history—the Civil War—to begin changing this, and another century before the political and legal infrastructure of liberal democracy was fully in place. It was only in the 1960s that the national government was able, or willing, to ensure that democratic and liberal rights were enjoyed by all citizens, including African Americans.

Moreover, even though the political and legal infrastructure of liberal democracy was finally in place by the 1960s, the economic and social legacies of our old regime—in the form of racial inequalities and animosities and a national identity that while inclusive in theory had long been exclusionary in practice—remained, and continue to mar the functioning of American liberal democracy up through the present day.

This political scientist brings us a warning.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Blog break

You'd think these birds would be hiding out this week, but actually they wander freely on Martha's Vineyard, a protected pest. Aggressive hunters did in the heath hen on the island, but the wild turkeys have persisted.

And so, for a blog break until Monday, December 2.

November has been a season of compound griefs, some of which I've written about here.

The griefs of the nation and of the planet compound the personal.

Cat nursing grinds on, quite possibly on a positive path.

We (and the cat) will be spend a couple of days in Maine with family, taking in both grief and gratitude.

Next Sunday, the Christian season of Advent begins -- a season of shivering terror as the darkness deepens and of clinging to joyful longing for the coming manifestation of God's love, the love which we believe we meet in a weak newborn human at Christmas.

Good travels and travails -- good winter dreams to all. Back soon enough.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Saturday scenery: Vineyard light

Sunrise on a clear morning on Martha's Vineyard.

As the sun peeks over the eastern horizon, it lights the sky to the west.

At midday looking out a window, those trees display their shapes against the sky.

And then, not long after 4:30pm, the sun slips below the horizon for the night.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Bad -- and worse? Los Angeles D.A. candidates

I'm feeling glad not to be a Los Angeles County voter faced with the available choices in the March district attorney contest.

The incumbent, Jackie Lacey, would never get my ballot. She's one of the (few) California prosecutors who remains enthusiastic for the death penalty.

Among the major issues confronting Lacey is her office’s ongoing use of the death penalty. An ACLU report issued this year identified 22 people who were sentenced to death while Lacey has been in office, and all of those defendants were people of color.

LA Times

She's also got the police and sheriffs union endorsement; again, not a recommendation to me.

And then there is George Gascón, former San Francisco D.A., now Los Angeles candidate for the same job. The national media want to make him the progressive reformer in the race. Certainly he did good work advocating for California Prop. 47 which downgraded the penalties for drug possession and some thefts from felonies to misdemeanors.

But on his watch, San Francisco suffered five killings -- five murders by police officers of civilians (black and brown naturally) -- and none of the officers involved received so much as a slap on the wrist from the legal system. None of the cases were adjudicated in a trial where all the facts would have been brought out. They just disappeared in Gascón's office. For all we can tell, he construes the law to allow police killers to walk free.

There is a former public defender in the L.A. D.A. contest. I don't know anything about Rachel Rossi but, if I were an Angeleno, I'd give her a look. After all, San Francisco has just elected a former PD who has jailbird parents. This can happen when the people in power screw up enough.

The Real Justice PAC which works nationally to "elect prosecutors who will fix our broken criminal justice system" has not make an endorsement in this race.

Friday cat blogging

For all his fans: Morty hangs on as best his aged digestive system and traumatized psyche will allow. We describe him as engaging in more and more "cat-like" behavior -- climbing up and down stairs, demanding laps, etc -- while still requiring a lot of assistance to get calories and water down him. We think he's a well cared for animal and we suspect when he's not fighting invasive treatment, he might agree. And its good to find him protesting ...

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Let the young people vote!


In the Democratic debate last night, candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar made a point of her support for automatic voter registration at age 18; she contended that if this reform had existed in Georgia in 2018, Stacey Abram would be Governor today. This may be true and was certainly appropriate in Atlanta.

But there's a far more ambitious vision floating around the edges of the political system that very likely will gain traction over time. That's lowering the voting age to 16. Candidate Andrew Yang is on the case. He believes lowering the voting age would increase citizen engagement with democracy.

Studies show that allowing younger people to vote has positive impacts on overall voting habits. Localities that have lowered the voting age have seen an increase in voter turnout across all age groups. Other studies have shown that delaying when a person first votes (because of birth dates and election cycles) decreases the likelihood that they will become a regular voter.

At 16, Americans don’t have hourly limits imposed on their work, and they pay taxes. Their livelihoods are directly impacted by legislation, and they should therefore be allowed to vote for their representatives.

Last March, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass) introduced a bill in the House to lower the federal voting age to 16. She argued that young people "have their own distinct experiential wisdom."

A 16-year-old will bring with them the 2019 fears that their father’s insulin will run out before the next paycheck.

A 17-year-old will bring with them the 2019 hopes to be the first in their family to earn a college degree.

A 17-year-old will bring with them a 2019 solemn vow to honor the lives of their classmates stolen by a gunman.

The Democratic Party controlled House rejected Pressley's measure by 126 to 305. We old folks aren't ready apparently.

But if we really believe that U.S. democracy thrives when civil rights and civil responsibilities are accessible to all of us, Astra Taylor explains what we can learn from local experiments with the franchise for younger people.

In 2013, Takoma Park, Md., became the first city in the United States to lower the voting age for local elections to 16. The turnout rate of 16- and 17-year-olds in the next election was nearly twice that of those 18 and older, inspiring the nearby town of Hyattsville to follow Takoma Park’s example.

Something similar happened in local elections in Norway in 2011, when 21 municipalities conducted a trial lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. A range of studies support the conclusion that 18 is not the optimal age to bestow the right to vote; people are leaving the nest and too preoccupied navigating college and work to figure out how to cast a ballot, let alone register to do so.

It is also the case that voting, though typically regarded as the paramount individual right, is actually a social affair. Research conducted in Denmark shows that having children old enough to vote at home makes their parents more likely to vote as well. And it’s habitual: Once you vote, you are more likely to do it again. A person’s first election is critical, a kind of democratic gateway drug, and it’s best to get him hooked young.

Being serious about democracy is likely soon enough to mean, without much controversy, adopting the campaign for this extension of voting rights.

Extending the vote to younger people is not just a U.S. novelty notion. As the United Kingdom once again confronts an election in which the fate of Brexit is engaged, three of the main political parties -- Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party -- all support a 16 year old voting age. If more young people had been able to vote (and more had bothered to do it), Brexit would never have passed. Yet it's the young people who will have to live with its consequences for much of their future lives.

Everywhere, it's the young people who will have to live with ever increasing consequences of climate chaos. Extending the vote to 16 year olds is only right.
...
And if that seems too radical, you might want to consider a good explainer by Kelsey Piper on why just maybe there should be NO age qualification for voting.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The testimony of a former asylum officer

Doug Stephens was charged with making determinations of which asylum seekers could apply for refuge in the United States -- until he couldn't stand what he was ordered to do any more.

"It was like this little window into how bad things happen in the world. This is how you get a group of people who are in a position to do good and slowly pivot them to do bad."

For Trump and his white nationalists, the cruelty is the point.

Beyond vote suppression

"this stuff isn't a Klan cross burning. ... it is very bureaucratic, very mundane, routine -- but it is lethal"

...

She's not on the stage, but tonight's Democratic debate in Atlanta is a demonstration of the power Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams wields in the party. Ultimately her power is the power of an idea that refuses to die in this disunited States: that all persons are created equal and when we all are able to vote, we win the government and policies we collectively choose.

I advocated strongly for a Democratic debate to come to Georgia because this is where the fight for our nation will be lost and won. And I am confident the eventual ticket will have Georgia on its mind.

Stacey Abrams, Washington Post

Abrams is not going to let Democrats write off the Sun Belt states in favor of trying to win back a tiny slice of disgruntled white voters in the upper Midwest. Such a strategy leaves their most loyal constituencies -- Black, brown, and young -- hung out to dry. And Abrams is making her move and throwing in with our future.

Since we can't count on national campaigns to attend to the on-the-ground struggle to deepen voter participation except in a few (often polling-determined) areas, Abrams and the resistance infrastructure built over the last few years will have to do it in parallel to the Democratic campaign. She's enlisted the ex-Obama staff boys at VoteSaveAmerica; they are pitching to fund Abrams' work. They've raised $1 million so far and aim to reach another million by the first of the year. Now that's something practical to do.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

May you live long and prosper, Ms. Drew!

That invaluable chronicler of Washington doings, Elizabeth Drew, turned 84 last week. She's still kicking.

If you were around during Watergate, Drew's long, careful accounts of Richard Nixon's disgrace in the New Yorker as A Reporter in Washington [paywall to archives] were the stuff of contemporary history. She was so measured, so detailed, that the confusing dramatics of the day seemed to evaporate in her telling -- only to re-emerge as a clear witness to the vitality of the Republic.

Early in the Trump administration in the winter of 2107, Ezra Klein interviewed Drew on his podcast. I remember being awed by her confidence that the institutions would prove stronger than the Trumpian bull let loose in the china shop of the presidency.

Last week, Drew brought her readers up-to-date on how she sees current political developments. As always, she's more quietly firm than alarmist. She still believes in the democratic (small "d") capacity of the people. And she has advice for today's Democrats. As she said on Twitter: "The great danger of playing today's politics [is] forgetting that it's making history."

... the great danger is that the legacy of this period will be that Mr. Trump got caught doing one bad thing rather than that he abused power across the board and wantonly violated the Constitution. The public is more than capable of understanding, among other things, that the president may have exploited his office to enrich himself, blatantly flouting the Constitution’s emoluments clause. ... I worry about the precedent set by focusing solely on Ukraine, an implicit view that other behavior — constant lying, redirecting government funds against Congress’s wishes (such as building a phantasmagorical wall), sloppiness with government secrets, using the military for political purposes, encouraging violence against the press, and still more — was acceptable.

All because of the schedule? History is unlikely to remember the schedule.

Don't cross this old lady!

Monday, November 18, 2019

A mayor as president

The prominence of Mayor Pete, not to mention former mayor Bloomberg, and former mayor Castro, and former mayor Booker, has the Upshot recounting the history of mayors running for President. The headline is that big cities have been a lousy launching pad for national executive ambitions -- no one has ever made the jump directly from a mayor's office to the White House. The discussion of the baggage which cities have historically carried among the wider electorate is actually mildly intriguing; these authors wonder whether being a mayor may carry less of a penalty these days as political polarization tracks more closely on a true urban/rural divide with the suburbs trending toward the cities. Intriguing Niskanen Center research from Will Wilkinson pursues the possibility that raw population density now predicts political leanings, yet another axis on which Republicans have hitched themselves to a declining demographic.

In any case, the discussion hit an historical nerve for me, because I grew up in the only (once) big city which has sent a mayor to the White House. I was raised on this civic accomplishment. Grover Cleveland (that's his statue outside Buffalo City Hall) was president twice, another oddity, first in 1885-9 and again in 1893-7. (In the intervening election, he won the popular vote, but not the electoral college. We know about that.) He was a Democrat, which meant in those years that he applauded the dismantling of African American Reconstruction-era political power in a solid Democratic South that provided the base for his national victories. (White Republicans were not much better, though they gave lip service to men like Frederick Douglass.) He ran on lowering government spending, against unions, for corporations, and against government corruption. As far as the last goes, his Democrats seem to have been somewhat cleaner than contemporary Republicans -- and Cleveland seems to have had the administrative chops to run the executive branch competently, no small feat in a dishonest era. No doubt, having been mayor of Buffalo and then governor of New York gave him practical experience seldom seen in less accomplished presidents.

Like many presidents, Cleveland left office deeply unpopular as political winds changed and western and southern populists led by William Jennings Bryan overwhelmed urban Democrats.

We can't neatly map the conflicts of the late 19th century onto our own, but their urgency and ferocity is a reminder that the struggle to make something of our democracy never ends.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Why is Nancy Pelosi talking about bribery?


The House Speaker does not always use the most precise language. But I think she's on to something here, although the lawyers will definitely quibble. (That's what lawyers are for.)

In case you missed it, here's how Pelosi explained the President's offense in a press conference about the impeachment inquiry this week:

The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That's bribery.

I am saying that what is — the president has admitted to and says it's perfect, I say it's perfectly wrong. It's bribery.

Pelosi is up against the fact that we tend to look at this through the wrong end of the telescope. We instinctively think what a corrupt politician wants is for someone to pay him off for using his power on behalf of the one paying.

But Trump's interaction with President Zelensky works the other way round. He's the one offering a bribe. He's offering to pay the literally embattled Ukrainian president for phony smears of Joe Biden and Democrats' 2016 campaign with our money. So what we've got here is both attempted bribery and theft from the taxpayers. It would still be bribery if Trump had offered Zelensky money from his own pocket. (Fat chance of that; he'd weasel on paying up as his foundation did with the vets.) But it's no less bribery because the money that Congress duly appropriated isn't Trump's to play with.

None of this is in the interest of United States foreign policy in support of democratic Ukraine or of the United States at all. It's in the personal interest of Donald Trump. No surprise, since the guy never discernibly has ever done anything in anyone's interest but his own.

Pelosi gets this guy. Can the rest of us?
...
For a less colloquial take on the "bribery" accusation, here's Charlie Savage. In particular, he explores what the men who designed the Constitution might have meant by "bribery." But for impeachment, I don't think we need to be that historically grounded and fair minded. The Orange Cheeto hopes he can use our money for his own re-election. 'Nuff said.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Saturday scenery: a blast from the past

Now for something a little different, encountered while Walking San Francisco. People who've been around the city for awhile may recognize this, a venerable tourist attraction in the Fisherman's Wharf/Ghirardelli Square area. Those of us who live in the city seldom venture into this overcrowded, hyper-commercialized corner of the city so I had no idea of whatever happened to the Automatic Human Jukebox.

In its prime, you really could drop in your coins, select your tune from the list, and out would pop the trumpeter to blast out your selection.

A sign tells some of the story of Grimes Poznikov, a classic 1960s character who very naturally ended up in the wild and wonderful San Francisco in the 1970s. As for so many characters of that time, life didn't end well for Poznikov.

These days his box performs a utilitarian function for local construction workers.

Yes, I have a couple more San Francisco precincts to process and share while I'm 3000 miles away.

Thirty years ago ...

Six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina were murdered inside Central American University in San Salvador. Their killers were Salvadoran soldiers, part of the U.S.-supported army which was fighting to keep right wing oligarchs in power. NPR reporters share their vintage reporting:

ABALOS: [The Jesuits] were speaking for people who were too afraid to speak. You know, they had the mic at that time. They could deliver this message, which was - this is wrong.

HAJEK: This violence against the poor. And the country heard the priests' calls for social justice, including those who wanted them dead.

ABALOS: Whoever was viewed as the enemy was the enemy, and it didn't matter whether they wore a clerical collar or not.

HAJEK: Priests and nuns who stood with the poor were targets accused of communism. Right-wing death squads had a mantra back then - be a patriot, kill a priest.

The University of San Francisco where E.P. teaches, maintains a Ramos Room in honor of Elba.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Friday cat blogging

I've been hesitant to report about the Morty's condition. He's very up and down. Last week he had a day of vomiting and inappropriate elimination and we thought he was a goner.

Since then, he's taken to (very) moderate self-feeding and drinking, which we continue to support with subcutaneous hydration and vitamin enriched cat food pushed into him. Left to himself, he seems to prefer dry crunchies to any of the good stuff. There's no accounting for cats.

Meanwhile, sometimes he wanders about exploring his still unfamiliar environment. Here he contemplates the scene of his escape back in September. We remind him firmly, "cats don't go out."

But mostly, Morty does what many an animal would prefer as the autumn dark and cold close in: he takes to the bed (ours, naturally).

Thursday, November 14, 2019

And then there were two more ...

Just when we were beginning to get down to a more reasonable number of Democratic presidential hopefuls, we get two more.

I'm offended. If they wanted to run, they should have joined the circus back in the spring and made themselves available to Democratic Party voters to assess in action.

I watched a version of Deval Patrick's announcement video. He might have made a strong candidate; he conveys a calm confidence that he can restore decency to the White House. I was reminded that when Doug Jones unexpectedly won his Alabama Senate seat in 2017, his campaign manager reported his greatest asset was giving voters a sense that he would reduce the crazy emanated by Trump. Patrick has some of that. But when he completed his terms as Governor of Massachusetts, Patrick disqualified himself by getting a job with the private equity vulture financial firm, BainCapital. Mitt Romney's old venue is not a recommendation to Democrats, even desperate "moderate" ones.

As for Michael Bloomberg -- sure, he's funded a lot of good gun control and some climate sustainability work. But hey -- we don't need a billionaire whose idea of good police work is "stop and frisk" treatment for thousands of Black and Latin men.

Go away guys. You missed your chance and you are not what we are looking for anyway. Oh -- and use your money to elect whoever is the legitimate Dem nominee.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Martha's Vineyard confronts climate chaos

Last night I attended a packed meeting at the West Tisbury public library at which Elizabeth Durkee, the town of Oak Bluffs conservation agent, laid out what's foreseen for this island as the climate warms. The Island Climate Action Network (ICAN) is sponsoring a series of such meetings in this quiet season.

I expected to hear a lot about the dangers of rising seas, and I did. Many of the island's roads skirt the shoreline and may be inundated by more powerful storms and the ocean itself over the next few decades. Significant island infrastructure -- the ferry landings through which people and commerce flow and the only hospital -- are located in areas that will flood.

But as a Californian, I was struck by this which I much less expected:
The wooded areas where I delight to run are very much at risk in years of drought according to town maps, as is this house. Accumulated dead wood in these wild forests creates acute fire danger. According to the Martha's Vineyard Commission website:

Climate change is bringing more periods of drought, i.e. extended periods of deficient water supply, punctuated by heavy rainstorms. This will increase the risk of wildfires, especially in the spring, before trees have leafed out. Wildfire could strike quickly with potential for great loss of life and property.

On Martha’s Vineyard, between 1867 and 1929, there were 16 fires greater than 1,000 acres, the largest burning 12,000 acres from West Tisbury to Farm Neck, Ocean Heights, and Edgartown in 1916. Since then, fires have generally been smaller. The last big fire was in 1965, burning 1,200 acres from Great Plains to Katama. In 1957, a fire burned 18,000 acres from Carver to Plymouth, burning all the way to the sea; 12,500 acres, more than twice the area of Martha’s Vineyard’s State Forest, burned in 6 hours.

The Vineyard probably has more people and buildings at risk from wildfire than at any time in our history because of several factors:

  • The regeneration of the forest in land that was largely open pasture in the 18th and 19th centuries;
  • The large population growth and amount of construction of almost exclusively wooden buildings since the 1950s;
  • Fire suppression efforts over the past century, leading to the buildup of fuel;
  • The presence of hundreds of acres of dead trees from a caterpillar infestation in 2004 to 2007 as well as trees that died throughout the Island from other causes;
  • and the increased risk of drought due to climate change.

It's not just California (and Australia) that can burn.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

GOPers seem to believe their own bullshit

Do a significant number of Republican Congresscritters actually believe the Trump-serving nonsense served up by Paul Manafort, that addled hack Rudi Giuliani, and various right wing trolls about Ukraine? Their tale is that this enfeebled country meddled in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Any Trump transgressions were merely self-defense. Congressman Devin Nunes's list of preferred witnesses for the impeachment inquiry certainly seems derived from this fable.

If anyone knew anything about Ukraine -- which by and large we don't -- this would simply be nuts. In 2014 Ukrainian citizens gathered in Kiev, sick of the corrupt rule of President Viktor Yanukovych, and overthrew this Russian-sympathizing leader. Their struggle was dramatic, multi-faceted, and turned bloody. When Yanukovych fled to Russia, triumphant citizens flooded to visit his magnificent mansion and private zoo. They wanted the place preserved as a symbol of their overthrow of the old regime, but perhaps inevitably never agreed on a national narrative.

Russia under Putin did have a narrative about Ukraine: the country was merely an amputated appendage of the historic great Russian empire, ripe for destabilization and seizure if possible. Most Ukrainians hoped their future was being part of Europe; Russia did everything it could to reclaim its "lost" territory, seizing the Crimean peninsula from Kiev and supporting armed separatists on Ukraine's Russian border.

Trump campaign hack Paul Manafort emerged from this stew. He had profited by flacking for disgraced President Yanukovich; he threw in with Russia's aims for Urkaine, presumably because that's where the money is. Rudi -- same deal. They sold Trump on the idea that Ukraine was doing dirty work for Hillary and the DNC, much to Russia's delight. Trump believed them -- he's got a thing for shady post-Soviets. Also for anti-Semitic tropes, so he has warmed to the Russian lie that somehow Ukrainian independence from Russia is a George Soros plot.

Every creditable investigation of 2016 campaign interference from abroad found Putin's secret police, not the barely functional, semi-democratic regime in Ukraine. That includes our national security spooks, Robert Mueller, and even the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee. There is no real argument about this. Trump's smarter appointees have tried to get him off the Ukraine fable, but he isn't budging. And so his sycophants in Congress and the administration must also believe.

This will shape the on-going impeachment inquiry. I hope -- and I think trust -- that Trump can't envelope the entire system in his delusion -- but we'll see.

Monday, November 11, 2019

For Veterans Day

For as long as I can remember, my recently deceased friend and mother-in-law kept this snippet of an antiwar poem posted on her refrigerator.

The next and final stanza of the Graves poem reads:

But the boys who were killed in the trenches,
Who fought with no rage and no rant,
We left them stretched out on their pallets of mud
Low down with the worm and the ant.

Like so many of the survivors of what we call the First World War, Robert Graves was not a chest beater. Do read all this short, searing poem. Graves went on to write one of the most devastating accounts anywhere of how what we now label PTSD broke down men dumped into trench warfare.

According to a Pew Center survey, majorities of U.S. veterans who have served in the post 9/11 Forever Wars think those conflicts have not been worth fighting. As the young officer John Kerry asked near the end of his war, the war in Vietnam:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

There's got to be a better way than harnessing the best impulses of young people, their fearlessness and desire to excel, to fruitless causes.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Twenty-five years ago: when nativist fears engulfed California


Twenty-five years ago this November, the electorate of the state of California passed Prop. 187 with 59 percent of the vote. Prop. 187 aimed to bar undocumented immigrants from receiving any public benefits such as health care, education, and social services.

For much of the white majority, the measure was a blow against an unfounded terror unleashed by a perceived Latinx invasion -- of people with and without legal papers -- people who spoke Spanish and, coincidentally, did much of the state's dirtiest and least respected work.

For much of the state's huge Latin-rooted population (19 percent in those days), Prop. 187 was quite simply a politician's self-serving assault on them and their families. Los Angeles Times reporter Gustavo Arellano has offered a perspective from his high school experience.

Gov. Pete Wilson, facing an uphill reelection campaign, led the charge, releasing campaign ads that showed grainy footage of people swarming across the San Ysidro border crossing as an ominous voice intoned: “They keep coming.”

Many Latinos, legal or not, saw the proposition as an existential threat. Wilson’s “they” looked an awful lot like them.

... Back in the fall of 1994, my first brush with immigration politics came when I was walking home from Anaheim High School and a truckful of white teenage boys yelled at me “187! 187!”

I had no idea what they meant, until I got home and turned on the news. Those white boys who yelled at me were all the explanation I needed about the proposition.

Arellano describes the excitement of student-led marches against this moral outrage and how he and his Latinx friends settled back into their lives.

For nearly all of my classmates who participated, it would be their first and last demonstration. They went on to normal, working-class lives — teachers, construction workers, city jobs, the military. ... Living fruitful lives was a direct repudiation against what Proposition 187 represented.

Many Latinx leaders did take up the political struggle to engage immigrant communities as voting citizens as well as workers. Another Southern California native, now a political scientist, thinks Prop. 187 changed the trajectory of Latinx power in the Golden State.

“Pete Wilson transformed us all,” said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, vice provost for graduate studies at UC Berkeley. The Downey native has written multiple scholarly articles, studies and books about the proposition’s impact on Latinos who grew up in the era. “I don’t know if he knows that, and I don’t know if that’s what he wants to be his legacy, but that’s how it is.”

Present day California Secretary of State Alex Padilla was one of those young people activated by Prop. 187. His office has created an online archival look at the struggle over the measure. Being a politician, his telling focuses on politicians:

According to Census Current Population Survey data, in 1994 there were 1.4 million Latinos registered to vote in California; today there are more than 4 million. There has been a more than 100 percent increase in Latinos serving in the state legislature. In 1996, there were 14 Latino state legislators; today, there are 29. In 1996, there were no Latino statewide officeholders; today, there are four. The U.S. House of Representatives had four Latinos from California in 1996, there are now 14. Prop 187 served as the catalyst for a new generation of activists who have led the way in creating the nation’s most inclusive set of policies and rights for immigrants.

It sure didn't feel so hopeful in the immediate aftermath, but determined Californians have made the state a better place; can we now meet the new challenges of our present time?
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